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Karl Barth

1886-1968. Swiss theologian. Born in Basel, he studied in Switzerland and Germany under some of the great liberal scholars of the day. His commentary on the epistle to the Romans, however, written in 1919 while he was a pastor of the Swiss town of Safenwil amid the tumult of World War I, broke with liberalism and established him as the leader of the new Dialectical Theology.* The liberal gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man was too shallow. Barth wanted to get beyond treating Christianity merely as an institution or a phenomenon in the history of religions, and to recover the reality witnessed to by the prophets and apostles. His understanding of Scripture was, however, colored by his reading of Dostoevsky* and Kierkegaard.* He stressed the transcendent hiddenness of God who reveals Himself in Christ. In so doing, God reveals both His grace and His judgment. The revelation of grace illuminates the sin and guilt of man even, or rather especially, in his religion.

Barth subsequently taught at the universities of Göttingen (1921), Münster (1925), and Bonn (1930) until his ejection from Germany when the Nazis came to power. He returned to his native town of Basel, where he taught until his retirement in 1962. Barth wrote over 500 books, papers, and articles, many of which have been translated into English, French, and other languages. They include important studies of Anselm, nineteenth-century theology and several NT commentaries. But his most enduring work is likely to be the monumental, but incomplete, Church Dogmatics, written largely at Basel and embodying his teaching there. The thirteen books are divided into four “volumes” dealing with: I. Prolegomena, the doctrine of the Word of God; II. the doctrine of God; III. Creation; and IV. Reconciliation. A fifth volume dealing with Redemption (eschatology) remained unwritten.

Barth's teaching changed and evolved over the years. But the theme of God's sovereignty in revelation through His Word can be traced from the commentary on Romans to his last works. In the Church Dogmatics it forms the basis for all theology. The knowledge of God occurs in the revelation of the Father, through the Son by the Holy Spirit. The basis of theology is thus the living Trinity Itself. The Word of God is not a thing or an object, but God Himself speaking. The Word of God has a threefold form: the Son as the Word of the Father, Scripture as the commissioned witness to that Word, and Christian proclamation. The three forms are in practice inseparable. The Word of God is known only through Scripture, and consequently all Christian proclamation (whether it be sermons, books, or any other form of testimony) must be tested by Scripture. Since God has chosen to reveal Himself in this way, Barth rejects as pointless, uninteresting, and sinful all forms of natural theology which attempt to find God by other means.

In the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics the thought of God's sovereign grace in His revealing Word is amplified by Barth's understanding of the incarnate Word. Barth came to regard the incarnation as the establishment of a covenant union of God and mankind in view of the union of God and man in Jesus Christ. This idea became the determining factor of Barth's later teaching. It became the key to his understanding of God, who is above all the kind of God who takes man into partnership with Himself. It was basic to his doctrine of Creation. God created the world with this union of God and man in view. Man is not to be understood in the abstract. The deepest truth about him can only be grasped by seeing man as he is in Christ.

Barth thought of sin, not as the transgression of an abstract law, but as man's attempt to break free from the grace in which he already stands. It is the attempt to live as if he were not God's covenant partner in Christ. Barth's teaching on redemption was a form of double predestination in which Christ is both the reprobate and the elect for all. On the cross He suffered rejection for all, so that all might be redeemed in Him. This brought Barth to the brink of universalism, though he refused to identify himself with that position.

Although he enjoyed a worldwide fame, Barth found himself increasingly isolated in later life. Conservative scholars complained that he had not done justice to the Bible's teaching about itself as the Word of God. Others complained that he was too biblicist and narrow in his conception of revelation. To many charges of his critics Barth had adequate answers. He had, moreover, insights which many contemporary theologians lacked. But he cannot be entirely exonerated of the charge of being more christocentric than the Bible, and (despite his own polemic against natural theology) of having erected a theology which was in many ways speculative on the basis of a biblical core. Barth's main contribution to theology was not the system that he constructed but the many profound insights and incentives to further thought that are to be found in his writings.

C. Van Til, The New Modernism (1946); G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (1956); H. Bouillard, Karl Barth (3 vols., 1957); F.H. Klooster, The Significance of Barth's Theology (1961); K. Runia, Karl Barth's Doctrine of Holy Scripture (1962); T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth: an Introduction to His Early Theology, 1910-1931 (1962); C. Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism (1962); G.H. Clark, Karl Barth's Theological Method (1963); H. Meynell, Grace Versus Nature (1965); H. Küng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (1966); C. Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message (1967); C. O'Grady, The Church in the Theology of Karl Barth and The Church in Catholic Theology (1968-69); J. Bowden, Karl Barth (1971); T.H.L. Parker, Karl Barth (1970).

For the most complete list of Barth's writings see Antwort. Karl Barth zum siebzigsten Geburtstag (1956), pp. 945-960; and Parrhesia. Karl Barth zum achtzigsten Geburtstag (1966), pp. 709-723.